How the 5 pillars of belonging can create a culture of connection at work

Posted on: February 28, 2023Updated on: August 9, 2023By: Maliyah Bernard

What’s more human than the desire to belong? 

Wanting to feel like part of the group is a fundamental human need, so it’s no surprise finding and maintaining connection at work has an outsized impact on things like retention, performance and employee well-being. 

Although most employees want to make more these connections at work, if a culture of belonging isn’t present—not to mention the additional barriers posed by hybrid set-ups—the kinds of friendships that can have positive impacts often remain just out of reach. Enter the role of the employer: to facilitate and (re)build these important relationships.

Warehouse Employees Smiling

David Bator, Director of the Achievers Workforce Institute, shares why companies need to care about fostering belonging and how to bring 5 identified pillars—welcomed, known, included, supported and connected—to life within your organization.

The business case of belonging

Achievers Workforce Institute defines belonging as “an experience of connection, security, community.” How does this look in the context of the workplace? 

Like being at home without reservation regardless of who you are, the job you do, how long you’ve been doing it or where, according to Bator.

“It’s a word that we’ve seen rightly attached to diversity, equity and inclusion but our research shows that belonging is actually an outcome of investment in those areas,” he explained during a recent episode of In The Know. “The broader view is that belonging can be the tie that binds the whole employee experience together.”

And when done right, it works. Research from Achievers Workforce Institute found companies that invest in fostering a strong sense of belonging see a 3x return on business outcomes like productivity, engagement and job commitment. But while every good leader might want to help their people feel comfortable and confident at work, these goals don’t always make the priority list when budgets are tight and staffing is strained. 

It’s time for this to change. Organizations are responsible for protecting the employee experience—creating and maintaining the conditions that make great work and employee engagement possible. 

As Bator put it: “As we face record levels of resignation and labor shortages, the business case for belonging is to build employee programs that attend to the 5 pillars because they’re the best way to attract and retain the talent that your business needs to perform.”

Pillar 1: Welcomed

For a new hire, understanding a company’s culture before getting into the nitty gritty of the job through training is a critical success factor. 

“Today, organizations are welcoming new people into the mix that may have never interacted with a colleague shoulder-to-shoulder before,” theorized Bator. “I recently spoke to an executive who said 55% of their staff in critical customer-facing roles were hired in the last 12 months.” 

Going beyond the standard onboarding path can help people feel like they’re part of a team from the very beginning.

“Our research shows that employees who feel warmly welcomed are twice as likely to feel that sense of belonging,” he continued. “But when I think about welcoming an employee in the broader context of belonging, I argue that it’s not about the first days, weeks or months. It’s about every day.”

The trick is for managers and organizations to create the conditions that continue to give every interaction and space colleagues share that warm, day-1 feeling.

Pillar 2: Known

In the era of the individual, engaging employees means meeting them where they are. 

“It’s a shift from policies to principles. When it comes to being known, it’s about embracing our people as the whole people that they are,” said Bator. “At work, many of us are asked to perform a function but we’re more than our roles. At home, we’re coaches. Caregivers. Parents. Partners.”

Employees should feel encouraged to bring their whole selves to work and rewarded for doing so, which might look different in practice for every single person.

“Some people want to be recognized in ways that are both personal and professional. For some, it may be the opportunity to share institutional knowledge. Others, sharing their pronouns that reflect their identities. It’s tough for managers and leaders but thankfully the era for one-size-fits-all is over.”

Pillar 3: Included

Inclusion and trust go hand-in-hand but only 18% of employees report having strong trust in their company leaders. What’s missing?

“Data aside, when you speak to individual employees, they want to be involved and their voices to be heard,” said Bator. “They want to be connected to the mission and vision of the organization, and their colleagues. These things are the secret ingredients to employee engagement and experience everybody wonders about.”

“What builds trust is a commitment of two different forms; one, to involve employees in the co-creation of the employee experience and two, to act on the feedback employees provide.”

Neither of these conditions are met when only 32% of workers feel heard, which our recent Retail Deskless Report research uncovered. Clearly, there’s still a lot of work to do here but there are solutions at-hand. 

Pillar 4: Supported

Companies’ employee development doesn’t only fall on the shoulders of the formal functions associated with HR and L&D departments. Managers also have enormous influence over their team’s ability to perform, explore opportunities and access support.

“Our research shows when you have a supportive manager, you’re nearly three times as likely to feel that you belong. Support comes down to the meaningful and consistent development of employees during their tenure with the organization,” offered Bator.

Where does an employee see their career heading with your company? While it’s up to the organization to provide the development programming to get them there, individuals need to be the ones to take action—and they need their managers to remove the obstacles in their way. Support is a shared responsibility.

Pillar 5: Connected

Technology can address the need for connection in the workplace, but Bator suggested most organizations aren’t getting the tech-enabled employee experience right.

“Tools can often do more to fragment us than they can to connect us. Forbes published a study a couple years back that found the average employee was losing 30 days a year of productivity to context switching. The opportunity isn’t to stack tools but to meet employees within their flow of work.”

Instead of falling for the hype of every new tech drop and layering tools upon tools, focus on the true goal of innovations that connect: giving employees simplified access to the resources, people and skills they need to be productive from anywhere.

Explore the other ways belonging at work drive performance by watching the full ITK episode.

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Maliyah Bernard

Maliyah Bernard is an academic writer turned content writer. As a former frontline worker, she loves writing about all the ways organizations can support these essential workers smarter.

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